Tattered Jeans

Making the hard choice to cut off contact with a brother tormented by schizophrenia & drug abuse

Making the hard choice to cut off contact with a brother tormented by schizophrenia & drug abuse

News_Katie_Tommy_Rice University_track_March 2012
By his sophomore year of college, signs of my brother's drug abuse became more visible. During a track meet that spring, while making the final turn toward the finish line, one of his shoes flew off.  Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_Tommy_Rice University_track_March 2012_clipboard
Who would have guessed that for the gifted young man, some called a gazelle, that race would be his last. Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_Tommy_Rice University_track_March 2012
My brother broke the Virginia state track records in the half-mile and mile and served as co-captain of an undefeated, state-championship team. As a senior, he peaked, running the mile in 4:26.8. Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_Tommy_Rice University_track_March 2012
News_Katie_Tommy_Rice University_track_March 2012_clipboard
News_Katie_Tommy_Rice University_track_March 2012

My oldest brother thrived at Episcopal High School. He broke the Virginia state track records in the half-mile and mile, and served as co-captain of an undefeated, state-championship team. As a senior, he peaked, running the mile in 4:26.8. 

He also excelled in academics. He maintained an A average and served as treasurer of the Blackford Literary Society.

Some who saw him compete said that he ran like a “gazelle.” For his graduation in 1969, his track coach wrote:

It is a liberating experience to watch him run.  He is poetry in motion — ruggedly aggressive when the big race calls for it and smooth as liquid when most high-school runners have submitted to cramps, tightness and lumbering breathlessness.

At the ceremony, he stood at the podium to receive an award. His shyness was a known characteristic. For him, the attention felt searing. Our family sat in the audience that day, along with others, watching and waiting, longing to hear him speak even if it was a simple “Thank you.”

 Sometimes, he will call. When he does I say, “I’m sorry,” and gently put the receiver down. Then, I cry.    

But he did not. He could not. He took the trophy into his hands as though it were a baby bird and walked from the stage silently, eyes glued to the floor.

As a graduation gift, my father had promised him a car of his choosing. The following fall, he drove to Rice University in a yellow Corvette the color of mustard. Speed was both a gift and thrill.

During his freshman year, he came home for Christmas. My grandfather, a pathologist, took one look at him in the living room and asked him point blank, “What are you on?”

My brother looked downward and only laughed. My parents attributed his weight loss to excessive training.

No one, except our grandfather, had a clue that when off the track, he was experimenting with drugs. In fact, years later he would tell me, “I took any drug I could get my hands on.”

By his sophomore year of college, signs of his drug abuse became more visible. During a track meet that spring, while making the final turn toward the finish line, one of his shoes flew off. It took to the air like a tossed coin. Who would have guessed that for the gifted young man, some called a gazelle, that race would be his last?

Afterwards, he came home for spring break. He often went out at night in his car and wouldn’t return until the wee hours.  

One night, my parents received a phone call from the police, who reported that he had been found passed out in his car, nose down in a ditch. Daddy hurriedly dressed and drove to the police station. It would not be the last occasion when he would come to his rescue.

 At 21, hell everlasting entered his life and his body. It latched onto his soul and fought for more space. 

Both of my parents were in shock and disbelief, unaware and unable to realize the depth of his troubles.  

Many hospitals and years later, the doctors explained that the drugs had served as a catalyst. A key if you will had opened a door to something they said had been sleeping — a disease called schizophrenia. Mother explained to my siblings and me that the drugs were like putting a match to gasoline. 

My parents couldn’t know that, once this door opened, there was no closing it. They threw their love, time and money into his well being but no one had more power than the monster behind the door.

At 21, hell everlasting entered his life and his body. It latched onto his soul and fought for more space. His brilliance, both on and off of the track, faded like a firefly in a jar.

He just turned 60, but, last summer, I made the decision to tell him goodbye. After walking with him from one rehab to another and to darker places in between, I finally saw what I couldn’t see earlier. That the monster (schizophrenia) had long turned into another one. Drug addiction.

My decision was hard and keeping it has felt harder. Sometimes, he will call. When he does I say, “I’m sorry,” and gently put the receiver down. Then, I cry.   

But when I saw the gazelle run, it was a liberating experience.

So too, is letting go. 

Author’s Note: This is for all those who walk the excruciating, yet extraordinary path with a loved one who suffers from schizophrenia.

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